By Sam Soergel
Opening day is fewer than 70 days away, and it looks like the Pirates still have some work to do if they want to stay competitive in the NL Central. They are undoubtedly one of the top three teams in the division, but it is highly unlikely that three teams from the NL Central will make the playoffs again. Right now, it looks like they will be playing catch-up with Chicago and St. Louis. The Pirates have made interesting moves this offseason, but if they want to match or even eclipse the 98 wins from 2015, they have to do more. Here are the moves they have made so far.
The Pirates have made some decisions that look decent this offseason. They have filled a need at first base and have bolstered their bench.
John Jaso (1B/OF): Jaso signed a two year contract in December, and he will be the platoon partner to Michael Morse at first base. He’ll replace Pedro Alvarez, who was non-tendered by the Pirates because $9 million was too much to pay for flashes of power and awful defense. Instead, the Pirates get Jaso for two years, paying him less than they would have paid Alvarez for one. Jaso started his career as a catcher, but concussions moved him to the outfield and first. However, once again, the Pirates will enter the season with their primary first-baseman learning the position. Jaso has played only a handful of innings at first, but he is still an upgrade over Alvarez. Jaso is also good on the opposite side of the ball, posting high on-base numbers throughout his career. This move shows the Pirates are valuing getting on base and defense over power. The Jaso signing looks like the best one of the offseason so far.
Jason Rogers (1B/3B): Rogers was acquired in a trade for outfielder Keon Broxton and will probably be used as a bench bat, but he is still valuable. He can play first, which is huge for the Pirates, and third. If Jung-Ho Kang is not ready by Opening Day, he can fill in at third with Josh Harrison at second. Rogers has had minimal time in the Majors, but has done well in that small sample as well as in the Minors. Like Jaso, he gets on base a lot. Despite Broxton’s speed, it was unlikely for him to break out here in Pittsburgh, especially with the outfield looking like it does now. Getting Rogers in return for him looks even better because Rogers plays first and is controllable until 2022. If Rogers contributes, even on an average level, for six years, this will be a trade the Pirates win.
Juan Nicasio – The Pirates brought in Nicasio to help a bullpen that has lost Joe Blanton, Joakim Soria, and Antonio Bastardo. He is a downgrade from any of those guys, but he throws hard and his stats are skewed from four years of pitching in Colorado. The Pirates are trying to keep a solid bullpen due to the fact that the back end of their rotation is not that strong. A bullpen with multiple pitchers that can go more than one inning can really help the Pirates, who have multiple pitchers in their rotation that sometimes struggle to go five innings.
Not Trading Mark Melancon – Rumors swirled since the beginning of the offseason that the Pirates would trade closer Mark Melancon, who is due to hit the free agent market after this season. He made almost $10 million in arbitration, and trading him would free up the money to fill a need. However, that would leave them without a key piece of their bullpen. Melancon had problems in April, but settled down to lead the league in saves. With the rotation looking like it does, the Pirates need all the help they can get in the bullpen. Keeping Melancon was the right choice.
These are the head-scratchers, the signings that make fans ask “why?” Most of the moves the Bucs have made this offseason could be put here, but here are the main ones.
Jon Niese – Jon Niese is a good fourth or fifth starter. Right now, he’s the Pirates’ third starter. Behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, the rotation is a big question mark. Niese has never put up great numbers, and it is tough to say whether he is enough of a return from the Mets for one year of Neil Walker, one of the most productive second baseman in the NL. Starting pitching depth is a problem for the Pirates due to injuries to guys like Nick Kingham, Casey Sadler, and Brandon Cumpton, so the Niese trade is not terrible. The problem is that he is looking like the team’s third starter.
Ryan Vogelsong – The Pirates reunited with Vogelsong on a one year deal worth up to $5 million. While Niese looks bad as a third starter, I think Vogelsong looks worse as a fifth starter. He is 38 and has not had a good year since he put up a 3.37 ERA with 14 wins in 2012, but the Pirates have to rely on him at least until Tyler Glasnow is ready. A rotation with Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Ryan Vogelsong, the Pirates need Liriano and Cole to be lights out. They could be out of the pennant race before Glasnow or Jameson Taillon are even ready to enter the roatation.
Kyle Lobstein – You might ask, “Who is Kyle Lobstein?” That is a good question. The Pirates acquired him from Detroit and plan to use him out of the bullpen as an Antonio Bastardo-esque pitcher, a left handed pitcher used to face left handed batters. Lobstein could be the long guy, too. He started in Detroit as well as coming out of the bullpen. However, results weren’t, and the Pirates should have tried for someone better for the bullpen. However, people said the same thing about Joe Blanton, and he just signed a $4 million deal with the Dodgers after his dominant second half.
This is the kind of offseason the Pirates always have. They make questionable signings and trades because they cannot shell out the big bucks like the Dodgers or Red Sox, but, for the last few years, it has worked out well. Last year, people were wondering about Antonio Bastardo and Francisco Cervelli, even about bringing back AJ Burnett. 98 wins later, people are still concerned. They have a right to be, however. The rotation is lacking, and the bullpen could use some work, but it is not all doom and gloom. Liriano and Cole still look good. Glasnow and Taillon hopefully will debut this year. The offense will still be productive. There is plenty of time to make more moves before April. Whatever move it is, it needs to help the Pirates win, because Chicago and St. Louis will be winning just as much, if not more.